The most pleasurable gifts to give are the ones you would most like to receive, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that your favourite books are the ones you should give to others. I’ve had to learn this lesson repeatedly, the most recent occasion being earlier this year, in my local bookshop, when I handed the bookseller a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
“Great book,” she said, “you’re going to love it.”
“Oh I’ve read it,” I said, “this copy’s for a friend.”
She paused, the book halfway into a bag. “You’re,” she stammered, her voice a mixture of scorn and amazement, “you’re giving someone Infinite Jest as a present?”
Her reaction, I soon realised, was entirely justified. Yes, the person I was buying Infinite Jest for loves tennis; yes, we met the same year the novel was published, as students at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where David Foster grew up; and yes, I think it’s a book that everyone should read. But as a gift idea it was – and is – horrible. If you’re going to embark on a 1,079-page novel with a difficult reputation and tiny type, you want to do it under your own volition. What you don’t want is to have it thrust into your hands in a crowded pub by someone who tells you that if you persevere past page 300 then yes, trust me, the whole thing will click.
This Christmas, to atone, I’m giving that same person Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, a book I know will deliver lasting, but also – importantly – immediate pleasure. The book’s concept is simple and ingenious: miniature essays about every song the Beatles recorded, from 1961’s My Bonnie to 1970’s I Me Mine.
“Close examination in context” is MacDonald’s description of his approach, which he delivers on brilliantly. No ploughing through to page 300 here: open the book anywhere and you’ll find something fascinating. In fact, you can happily start at page 300, with I Want You (She’s So Heavy): “Beneath their often viciously hurtful attacks on each other, the Beatles were still psychologically locked together at a deep level.” Open at random, get hooked, and devour the whole thing in any order you like.
Part of the book’s immediacy is down to MacDonald’s talent for aperçus. Consider his description of how Love Me Do’s rawness stood out from quaint contemporary British sounds “like a bare brick wall in a suburban living room”, or his assertion that Revolution 9, the musique concrète experiment from the White Album, is “the world’s most widely distributed avant-garde artefact”. He is also capable of analysing songs from an ethical perspective as well as a musicological one. Thus the “sour A minor melody” of Glass Onion, a song that plays self-referential games with numerous strands of the band’s mythology, is one facet of the song’s “unlikeable” attitude: “Whether or not Lennon was fed up with being a Beatle, there was no excuse for berating those of their fans who had trustingly fallen for the group’s multi-layered conceptual jokes”.
In his preface, MacDonald states the book’s aim “to replace gushing hero-worship with a detached, posterity-anticipating tally of what the Beatles did”, a stance exemplified by his concluding lines on the Lennon ballad Because: “Many have admired the song’s mood of visionary detachment without taking account of the heroin then flowing coldly around its composer’s body”.
At times, when he’s describing the guitar Paul McCartney used to play the “fiercely angular slide guitar solo” on Drive My Car (an Epiphone Casino “first used on the coda of Ticket to Ride”), or the exact point on Within You Without You that George Harrison can be heard “softly counting in the tabla player” (3:46), you sense there is no detail that escaped MacDonald’s attention. Perhaps, if his book had not been published in 1994 but a few years later, MacDonald might have even had space in the entry for Harrison’s I Want to Tell You to note that the song’s lyrics form part of a conversation between Hal and Orin Incandenza on page 32 of Infinite Jest.
As it stands, my friend will have to put that one together himself – if he ever gets as far as page 32.
After conquering the dancefloor during 1995-1996 with his Paperclip People project, Carl Craig turned back to the electronic mood music of Landcruising and created a work of gorgeous, exquisite electronic listening music. It's a difficult record to digest, but more deserving of Jeff Mills' oft-quoted tag concerning techno being something you've never heard before than any techno record of the '90s. Craig largely wrote his own production playbook, seemingly taking the words written on the cover as a challenge: "Revolutionary art is determined...by how much it revolutionises our thinking and imagination; overturning our preconceptions, bias and prejudice and inspiring us to change ourselves and the world." After a short introduction, "Televised Green Smoke" floats in on a haze, working through the classic blueprint of dance music -- the gradual addition of layered, complementary elements -- until it reaches a soft peak. "Red Lights" works a slow-grind breakbeat, cycling through the Paperclip People oscillator with strings in the background and an atmosphere reminiscent of The Godfather. "Dreamland" and "Butterfly" are closer to "traditional" Detroit productions, sharp and focused but rather melancholy; the former is a reach-out to the British-Detroit axis (As One, Black Dog, B12), while the latter evokes the classic late-'80s productions of Craig's friend Derrick May (who co-produced a later track, "Frustration"). The Maurizio dub "Dominas" is nocturnal and unhurried, even despite the insistent beat and a female vocal sample repeating the title one word after another. Another classic, "At Les," balances a few gently cascading chords with a rhythm program that keeps pushing the track forward and faster. More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art thumbs its nose at the growing ranks of intelligent techno blowhards, and arguably bests anything the IDM crowd mustered before or after it.